Fulham does not make anything easy. Before Zoltan Gera scored what turned out to be the only goal of last night’s match, it should already have been 2-0 to the home side. By half-time, it could have been four or five.
But, as always, the Whites did not give their loyal supporters any room to breathe, and kept them on the edge of their seats for the full 94 minutes. In fact, the visitors nearly stopped the home fans breathing altogether with a series of long-range efforts – the closest of which was blocked on the line by Damien Duff – as CSKA tried to salvage a point from a game which should have been a result by the interval. Fortunately, instead of taking an unlikely lead as Bolton did at the weekend, the Bulgarian side rattled Mark Schwarzer’s bar before Roy Hodgson’s men deservedly opened the scoring.
Thursday’s must-win Europa League tie was – not looking at the result for a moment – a thoroughly effective Fulham performance, and the squad is currently showing few signs of burning out. Despite a few first-team names starting on the bench, their replacements, along with the first-teamers who did start, have still played an awful lot of football lately – but their attitude and determination to win the game belied this. Hodgson is using his squad players at every opportunity, and most have impressed, which is a comforting sign for Fulham fans for when the inevitable exhaustion does set in. He also showed, with the injuries to Andy Johnson and Diomansy Kamara, the suspension of Erik Nevland, and the well-earned rest of Clint Dempsey, that his tactics can be adapted around the personnel available.
Fulham starting XI vs. CSKA Sofia
4 Pantsil – 26 Smalling – 5 Hangeland – 2 Kelly
29 Davies – 13 Murphy – 6 Baird – 17 Riise
25 Zamora – 11 Gera
There is nothing unusual about this formation on paper, but the team did not play like it was a standard 4-4-2. Bobby Zamora was, for the most part, given the freedom of leading the line by himself, which he did impeccably, popping up on the right and left of the pitch to collect balls played into his feet or his head. Zamora’s role to cover the width of the field meant Gera, the goalscorer, dropped into the hole behind the target man, and in front of the fit-again Danny Murphy, and Chris Baird. A role the Hungarian relished.
Since Gera was signed in the summer of 2008, he has been deployed almost exclusively on the right wing. He did very little to impress in his first season, giving the ball away almost as frequently as Jimmy Bullard, and hitting the woodwork with almost every chance he got – however close to goal. This season, since a storming performance in the Carling Cup against Manchester City, he has been a new player, now used to the extra effort being on the wing requires. On Thursday, however, he was back in his familiar position between the midfield and attack, where he made his name at West Brom.
He was exceptional there, and he deserves a shot in the league. The Hungarian was the man of the match by some distance, and should have had a few assists to add to his goal. But for Murphy’s uncharacteristically shambolic penalty and Zamora’s somewhat characteristically wayward finishing, he would have. On the wing, Gera has the tendency to cut back, or attempt the easy pass, but last night he ran productively towards goal with the ball, and into space around the box without it. He was the perfect accompaniment to Zamora’s ability as a target-man and only some questionable finishing from his teammates stopped his side getting the scoreline his effort justified. On the wing, instead of Gera, was the still-recovering Simon Davies, and he was guilty of a couple of the aforementioned misses, but his performance was full of promise as the competition in Fulham’s midfield really heats up, much like the contest to qualify from Group E.
This win means qualification from the group is still in the Whites’ hands – a win in Basel would see Fulham leapfrog the Swiss side to go through with Roma, who beat the Londoners’ next opponents in Italy last night. That result means Basel must get a draw, so both sides’ qualification hopes rest on that fixture.
For a side that is never comfortable to watch, the match in Switzerland represents 90 minutes of hope – and nerves. Start growing your nails, otherwise you will be chewing on your fingers come stoppage-time on December 16.